The UCPAC Mainstage is housed in the restored Rahway Theatre, conveniently located in Downtown Rahway within close proximity to a NJ Transit train station and a handful of major highways for easy access to the facility. It's the main venue in our growing campus, and is host to a vast lineup of live performances and events each year. This historic landmark has become the centerpiece of the recently established arts district of Rahway, which has played a vital role in the revitalization and cultural renaissance of the community.
The magic of The Union County Performing Arts Center is experiencing live performances in a restored 1928 vaudeville and silent movie palace. Seating just over 1,300 and lovingly restored to its golden age grandeur, the Mainstage is a monument to an era past.
One of the special features of The Union County Arts Center lies in its original Wurlitzer organ. The UCPAC's organ, a modest Wurlitzer of seven ranks (500 pipes, plus percussives), was at the heart of the preservation effort in which the Arts Center emerged from. Since the 1960s when it was first restored, the organ was played regularly and frequently recorded on by celebrity organists and Arts Center volunteers. Its enormous sound (albeit small size) has coined the moniker "Biggest Little Wurlitzer" for itself. You can learn more about the history and restoration of our theatre organ from the Garden State Theatre Organ Society.
The theater is listed on both national and state registers of historic places, and is now operating as a multi-purpose venue for the performing arts. The Mainstage is also listed on PreservationDirectory.com, an online directory and resource center for historic preservation, building restoration and cultural resource management.
The organization is run by a professional staff, and is supported by its outstanding volunteer corps. The UCPAC is a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) corporation. The original building is the Rahway Theatre, and is the largest functioning center for the performing arts in Union County.
The opening night for Bratter and Pollack’s million-dollar Rahway Theatre was Tuesday, October 16th, 1928 at 7:30 PM – a gala benefit film and stage show that was the city’s social event of the year. The opening performer was Chet Kingsbury, the house organist. His name didn't appear in the program - as the real attraction was the magnificent $20,000 Wurlitzer pipe organ on which that virtually forgotten artist played. The first set of the night was a double feature of “Tenderloin” with Dolores Costello and Conrad Nagel, and “Ham and Eggs at the Front” with Myrna Loy, Tom Wilson, and Chester “Heinie” Conklin.
The theater was built for both vaudeville performances and movies screenings. It included a magnificent, tiered chandelier, an orchestra pit, a grand Wurlitzer organ, dressing rooms, an elegant lobby, a sitting room and a nursery for the children of theater patrons. Outside, the front façade displayed a huge vertical sign indicating “RAHWAY” topped with a flashing diamond and boasted a marquee with over 2,500 lights. According to local newspaper reviews of the grand opening, “The theatre contain[ed] the latest innovations in lighting and staging equipment, capable of producing any conceivable type of show to the highest degree of professionalism…the splendid décor and lighting of the auditorium were crowned by a pendant dome with a 9 foot wide by 13 foot tall crystal chandelier with over 500 lights.” The theater was the last word in opulence.
Designed by noted architect, David M. Oltarsch and built by Barney Engelman (a Rahway merchant), the theater was constructed in the style of a movie palace. It's a classic example of a “picture palace,” a type of structure representing a unique and short-lived social and architectural phenomenon of the early 20th century. The Rahway Theatre was a link in the Bratter and Pollack east coast chain of silent movie and vaudeville houses. Its location on the Pennsylvania Railroad corridor between New York City and Philadelphia made it a hub for shows that were traveling between the two major cities. However, the theater opened late in the life of vaudeville – "talkies" arrived only a few months after the opening. The Rahway Theatre struggled during the Depression. RKO endeared itself to the community at that time by providing jobs to the unemployed as door-to-door ticket sellers. In 1936, the theater was sold to the Columbia Amusement Corp. World War II helped propel the country into a new period of prosperity. The movies provided an escape from hard times, and the newsreels kept the public informed about the progress of the war.
There was no immediate sign of change in movie attendance when the war ended. In fact, the Rahway Theatre would continue to draw sizable audiences well into the 1960s as a movie theater, but the writing was on the wall. The grand era of the picture palace was facing a premature death. By the early 1970s, the building had fallen into disrepair.
Rahway Landmarks, a nonprofit corporation formed specifically to purchase the theater and preserve it as a performing arts center, could not have asked for a better impetus for its drive to raise the necessary funds. On September 11, 1984, the title to the theater was transferred from the Wood Theater Group of Morristown to Rahway Landmarks, Inc. Within weeks, restoration was underway.
In October 1985, the Rahway Theatre was officially renamed The Union County Arts Center by The Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders. Its primary interior restoration was from 1986 to 1990. The facade restoration began in 1996, and the backstage and orchestra pit restoration were completed in 2008. The theater has become a beacon of the Rahway Arts District's efforts and has contributed to the economic revitalization of the city and county. Efforts to address ongoing maintenance needs continue, and additional restoration work and the modernization of certain utilities and fixtures of the facility in order to retain its status is constant.
Enjoying a prime location in Union County, The UCPAC is dedicated to making this landmark the perfect choice for entertainment, education and experimentation. The UCPAC continues to provide exciting live performances that are educational, affordable and responsive to the diverse interests of our communities. Check our calendar of events for upcoming performances and pay us a visit!